Unhappy Nation America: Not a Family, Not a People

America is not happy. However it might look on paper, in reality we are not getting along. We are e pluribus unum, no more.

I wrote that, and later struck it as being too harsh, for my latest column at First Things, which was written after an evening’s troubling conversation with an African American friend who is feeling done with everything and everyone. The militarized police in Ferguson so strained his basket of disciplined goodwill that I suspect one more straw, no matter how light, will break it, and irreparably.

In my friend’s anger, I could hear his limits having been met. Suppressed resentments, dammed back over decades, were surging, pressuring him to simply give up and give himself over to the sense of grief and pain that had him wracked. But to release the anger, for the sheer relief of it, was also a scary thought. He is not a man interested in creating collateral damage for self-gratification.

The conversation was instructive and wrenching, and one I will be thinking about and praying over for a long time and will probably write about as I process it further. One thing we touched on as we talked was the sense that the whole nation is “done with it”, whatever it is, and resentment — a sense of the promise of America not having been kept — is everywhere.

National resentment means an unhappy America and a citizenry at-war with itself, because resentment can only exist where there is an “other”. That’s what I was pondering as I wrote my latest column for First Things, in which I gamely filtered through my mother’s troubled and troubling anti-Semitism.

“Those Jews really stick together,” she would rant, never pausing to consider how the pogroms and ashes of not-distant history were the costly components of so strong a glue. [...]
Though the specter of anti-Semiticism has diminished though not been made extinct, it distresses me how often Americans level complaints against each other in the same manner as my mother did against Jewish people.

The haves and have-nots are watching each other with distrust, each saying “they stick together” and the resentment mounts.

The African-American community and the cops are facing off, saying among themselves: “they close ranks; they stick together” and fear and distrust fulminate.

The political class and the hoi polloi are at a similar stand-off, with their roles as servants and masters utterly confused; between secularists and believers, the barricades are rising.

Truly, from class to class, community to community, no one seems capable of assuming good faith, or of reaching out to others in that assumption. There is a sense that only one more line need be crossed before everything falls apart. And if groups of all sorts aren’t able to stick together, how can we hope that America will have any sort of cohesion?

The “great experiment” that has been America is looking a bit rocky, perhaps because we barely know ourselves anymore. And what nation can be sustained without a sense of itself as a people?

You can read the whole thing here. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.

In one of those odd bits of synchronicity that happen, sometimes, I no sooner finished filing the column when I saw saw David Mills posting on a very similar theme at his blog, where he picks up a point from Cornell West.

You’ve got to be able to tell the truth to the American people. We’re not a family. We’re a people. We’re a nation. And a nation always has divisions.

We’re not a family, we’re a nation, that’s an important insight.
I think much of current policy comes from trying to settle disputes as if we were a family, where forbearance can be imposed and concessions to the odd or eccentric or egotistical member can be required, even if his demands aren’t fair or reasonable, because the alternative is division. Hence what’s called political correctness — which has a conservative as well as a liberal mode — which tries to squelch possibly divisive arguments in favor of a kind of family coziness, which of course is in fact dysfunctional.

This morning brings Frank Bruni, writing about feeling Lost in America:

More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.

There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.

My column was weeded of the line that opened this post because it seemed too hard, too negative. Want to see what else got struck?

The “great experiment” that has been America may be nearing its end, and perhaps that will be for the best, for we barely know ourselves, anymore.

My mother’s resentment of Jewish people was rooted in her sense of exclusion and of not belonging. The sad realities of her life had cast her adrift; raised by anyone with a spare room, she belonged nowhere, and to no one. Perhaps that, more than anything, informed her jealousy and hate, because the Jews — neither entitled, nor ungrateful, nor privileged, nor unfairly compensated — knew who they were and belonged to each other; they were, first and foremost, a people watching out for themselves and each other, before submitting to anyone else’s rhetoric.

That doesn’t sound so bad, just now. We’re not exactly a flophouse nation, yet. But we are seriously adrift.

house adrift shutterstock_134984156

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  • Antiphon411

    Good point! Then when I have evil opinions that fall outside the mainstream, I can be hounded out of my job and my wife and four children can be fed at state expense. We might see how quickly the shield of white privilege vanishes at that point. Only whites can be perpetrators of thought crimes (Surely that is not because only whites think?).

  • Skay
  • Mike Blackadder

    Actually Lizzie, I don’t understand why black-on-black violence needs to be addressed by black communities instead of being addressed by the American system of law and justice. Shouldn’t a black victim have just as much recourse and expectation of personal safety living in America regardless of the race of the offender?

    Why is it that the majority of black people who abide by the law, who support their families sometimes through particular adversity and who suffer at the hands of lawlessness and violence from other blacks are somehow responsible to resolve this problem only because they are of the same race? These problems are America’s problems, not black people’s problems. Time to stop apologizing for what is objectively wrong and harmful attitudes and behavior and leave people’s skin color out of it.

  • oregon nurse

    I have to agree that we don’t have institutionalized racism anymore. What we have are people who are fed up with destructive lifestyles and people who won’t take responsibility for it. That includes whites as well. Sometimes bad things happen to people simply because they act badly and I refuse to let people label me a bigot or a racist because I speak the truth about it. It’s no accident and it’s not because we’re white that I and my family have never been arrested or been ‘roughed’ up by police. It’s because we don’t break the law – plain and simple.

  • Rand Careaga

    I don’t know about that. I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, which I suspect is one of the most racially, linguistically and culturally diverse regions in the country, and we actually all get along pretty well. As I said earlier, I have no use for the criminal underclass, but that element is a minor fraction of *every* group. I can say from the personal experience of the four decades since I arrived in this part of the state that “Orientals, Indians (sub-continental and South American), Blacks, and Whites” most of us contrive to live alongside one another, and even to generate a certain amount of synergy (and the restaurants? Don’t get me started. Yum). It’s perhaps less a melting pot than a bouillabaisse, and there’s something to be said for the maintenance of individual flavors. Seems to me that the sort of thinking that glorifies “white Europeans” as a desirable abstract leads us by a series of seemingly innocuous short steps ultimately to Bosnia twenty years ago (and how did that go for all those white Europeans, BTW? For that matter, were you paying attention to developments in Northern Ireland in recent decades?).

  • Rand Careaga

    This is, after all, Mean Lizzie’s parlor, and we are guests here. I trust that baffledlife is not in the habit, in the real world, of insulting his/her host on social occasions.

  • Rand Careaga

    When you speak of occasional mistakes or “improper” actions, perhaps you are referring to the case earlier this year in which a 22 year-old black man was searched by police, who found a small quantity of narcotics on his person. Oddly enough, their search did not turn up the handgun concealed on his person, which the detained man, his hands cuffed behind his back, contrived to use to shoot himself in the back. Only—oops!—the coroner has determined that the bullet “entered the right side of his chest, tearing through his left lung and heart and exiting through his left armpit, leaving the upper arm with lacerations.” Try, Manny, to imagine the gymnastics required to accomplish this feat. “Real racism” indeed exists. It no longer enjoys statutory protection, but at the street level it happens every day.

    I have a friend, a successful professional in his sixties, who grew up under Southern segregation, moved to California decades ago, and still has been given grief by white law enforcement when he visits his old stomping grounds (in one instance he was pulled over and detained while the cops ran a check to make sure his Mercedes hadn’t been stolen, because a black man driving an expensive car…well, there’s your probable cause right there, am I right?).

  • Antiphon411

    I guess the question to ask is: What is racism?

    Is it racist to state that blacks are disproportionately represented in crime statistics?

    Is it racist to state that blacks tend to have lower IQs?

    Is it racist to say that most whites and many upwardly-mobile blacks don’t want to live in black neighborhoods?

    Is it racist to say that most nations in Africa are totally dysfunctional?

    Is it racist to say that there is more likelihood for Italians and Irishmen to find common ground and intermarry and create a blended society than for Italians and Nigerians?

    I think it’s racist to say: “I hate blacks and want to kill them.” No one here has said that. I doubt anyone here would say that. I know people who say that–they are bad.

    “Racist” is a nice label. The one who uses it gets to feel morally superior, while avoiding dealing with problems.

  • Antiphon411

    Black-on-black violence does indeed need to be resolved within the black community.

    Black-on-white violence needs to be resolved in the white community–as does the miniscule amount of white-on-black violence.

    Of course, whites could also help blacks resolve their internal problems with violence. Africa was not plagued by horrible civil wars–so far as I know–so long as Europeans were running the show. Nor was there a large amount of black-on-black crime in the segregated USA.

    I know that you will not find it edifying, but there is an interesting discussion at Taki’s Magazine (http://takimag.com/article/the_real_black_sheep_kathy_shaidle#axzz3Bchmi2dB) on black cultural conformity. Some interesting points are made in the combox regarding segregation. (Beware: Some of the comments are racist and unpalatable–really, I’m not being snarky. Some, however, are only “racist”.)

  • Antiphon411

    I have often wondered whether we should speak of the USA black situation in terms of the “destruction of the black family”. Perhaps black social stability, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, was an aberration. Perhaps it was a successful imitation of white social stability.

    What are families like in Africa? Is the man+woman married forever with children family the norm? Is there a black middle-class there? (Perhaps such a thing cannot be in the absence of industrialization?)

    Getting to the heart of the black family situation in USA is very important. The search for an answer should not begin with: Whitey’s keeping us down.

    So-called race realists have the sanest most dispassionate discussions of race, so far as I can tell. Most of them are not really (“Kill all blacks!”) racist.

  • Antiphon411

    “…Antiphon admits his own racism.”

    Yes, but what does “racism” mean?

  • radiofreerome

    I am a white man from Louisiana. Because my father was burned in an industrial accident before my first birthday and my mother had to both run the family business and travel 70 miles to New Orleans, I was raised by our housekeeper/nanny, a black woman named “Lula.” For the first few years of my life, I thought she was my mother.

    I saw the 1960′s, a time of racial violence and mistrust, up close. The word “nigger” was used frequently, the strong man, Judge Leander Perez had my brothers Catholic grade school firebombed to keep it from opening as an integrated school. My nanny never complained. She saw the frequent stories on the news of KKK terrorism including the bombing of churches, the murder of children, and the police helping the KKK to murder blacks and anti-segregationists as was commonplace in the Gulf South at the time.

    My family and I did nothing to deserve Lula’s grace and forbearance. I still marvel at it now.

  • radiofreerome

    So many Leander Perez’s to excommunicate. So little time.

  • Skay

    There are two sides to the Ferguson story.
    We saw Michael Brown stealing from a store on video–and the witness who gave the original story was with Brown during the theft. Sometimes things are not as the media portrays them to be. There are now other witnesses who have a different story about what Brown actually did. We have to wait and see what the facts really are. Don’t you think that is fair?
    I remember that the police did very little the first night to stop the rioters(no militarism at all)_who were smashing and stealing from various stores whose owners had nothing to do with the incident. The rioters returned the next night to do the same thing since the first night went to well for them. Do you think these rioters had the “right” to do that?
    The “New Black Panther Party” was prominently involved with the marches. They are all about racial divide and worse. As we know Eric Holder refused to do anything about their voter intimidation during a federal election–because of their race. He said as much.
    I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Ben Carson. He and many other African Americans I could name are great role modals for children of any race. They saw the opportunities this country provided them and achieved success. They earned it.

  • johnnysc

    ‘Walking while white’ in a black neighborhood ain’t no picnic either.

  • Antiphon411

    Dear Anchoress, I wanted to thank you for allowing me to join the discussion on your blog. You and I would probably get along well in non-virtual life. I suspect we might enjoy a pint together.

    I wanted to commend you for your toleration of unfashionable opinions. Mark Shea blocked me almost immediately. And poor Fr. Longenecker closed down his combox after a rigorous “extra ecclesiam” discussion.

  • Ex Nihilo

    The world’s greatest ‘community organizer’ is playing this right out of his drivers manual, ‘Rules for Radicals’.

    Alinsky said change is brought about through relentless agitation and “trouble making” of a kind that radically disrupts society as it is.

  • Caroline Moreschi

    Eventually I had to stop reading the comments: too damn depressing.

    There will always be racists, but the sheer amount of racism in America is breathtaking. On the one hand, I get it. I’m a white woman, and yes I feel uncomfortable walking in majority black neighborhoods. However, one’s perception of safety/ danger is extremely flawed. How many people get in a car and drive without a second thought- statistically a much more dangerous undertaking than “walking white in a black neighborhood.” We white folks, especially in the South, are trained to fear black folks, to consider them unintelligent “thugs” (the new N word). And because our society is still so segregated we may never have our fallacies corrected by experience.

    Keep fighting the good fight Lizzie. :)

  • MeanLizzie

    People may wonder why I have not closed this thread or tossed out people whose ideas are offensive to others or “not gratifying.”

    First, I’ve never been much for banning, although I have done it when necessary.

    Second, I think this country is infected with something that is going to kill it and one reason we’re so poisoned and in extremis is that we’ve gotten into this habit of making people shut up b/c someone might be “hurt” or someone might be “insulted” or “offended”, and if an infection is not permitted an escape route — if it is just trapped within — it will eventually pustulate and the poison will be deadly. (I’m writing in a hurry, so that might sound dumb).

    There are lots of hurtful, insulting opinions out there — there are also thoughtful ones trying to find a best route to expression and they are too-often waylaid by the insta-insulted or a fear of labeling. If we’re going to get better as a society, a dialogue must be allowed to begin. Eric Holder said we were too cowardly to have a discussion on race and he might be right, but part of the cowardice comes from labels being thrown easily and silencing being too swift.

    The conversation can continue here, as long as it is civil — up to my usual 48 hours when they close automatically b/c I find it takes about that long for people to start repeating themselves and boring me.

    ALL OF THAT SAID: Comments will be held back from now until 11PM with NO release, b/c I will be engaged somewhere and unable to moderate until then. I’m telling you that b/c nothing bugs me more when ppl stamp their feet at me b/c they’ve left a comment and can’t immediately see it, so they assume I’ve trashed it. Sorry, but Mama does have a life outside this desk. And sometimes she even sleeps, too. :-)

  • Gail Finke

    My best friend from high school was first-generation Chinese-American. She studied for a while in LA but didn’t stay because she said the Asian groups all hated each other. Where we were from, Chinese people, Korean people, Japanese people, etc. were not all one “Asian” group but also did not dislike each other. In LA, she said, the groups were all very distinct and didn’t like outsiders, but REALLY didn’t like other Asian outsiders.

  • Gail Finke

    ANY man driving an expensive car in a very poor neighborhood, at least at certain times of day or night and on certain streets, would be grounds for suspicion, as you would know if you lived near any very poor neighborhoods.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I completely agree with you. Everyone here is acting as if the people who the cops harrass don’t share any blame. Sometimes they don’t; my perception is that most do share blame.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    So you found an example of police abuse, and even then you didn’t prove it was because he was black. Abuse happens, but out of the millions police interactions the percentage of abuse is miniscule. Picking the most egregious examples does not prove systemic police abuse or racism. Systemic police abuse would be proven if out of all the police interactions there would be as much as (pick a numnber) 1 or 2 percent that constituted abuse. Show me the statistics of systemic abuse and I’ll change my mind.

  • Antiphon411

    I grew up in Los Angeles and spent a decade in the Bay Area at Berkeley (undergraduate and graduate). My impression is rather otherwise. The Bay Area is perhaps better because the majority minority is Oriental, but there are certainly many if not most parts of Oakland I wouldn’t want to be in at any time of day. Los Angeles is much worse.

    The point is that there is no melting pot. The peoples esp. of the Bay Area are not blending together. Of course there is nothing wrong with that–I am no great fan of miscegenation. But a melting pot it ain’t. Bouillabaisse is a fine metaphor; stew would be another (or paella?!).

    The comment to which I responded lamented (if I recall correctly) the breakdown of the melting pot. My point is that the melting pot is not possible with racially diverse ethnicities. Nor would it be desirable. I like races and ethnicities to retain their distinctive characteristics. As a white man of European extraction and Catholic Faith, I like my culture and my people and would like to see it preserved, as well. Many people, white and otherwise, don’t seem to share my love.

    Speaking of the good food in the Bay Area, man have I been longing for a Top Dog recently!

  • radiofreerome

    “t’s no accident and it’s not because we’re white that I and my family have never been arrested or been ‘roughed’ up by police. It’s because we don’t break the law – plain and simple.”

    How’d that work out for Jesus?

  • Skay

    I also grew up in Louisiana-a different part- and my experience was quite different. Perez was not well thought of in the rest of the state radiofreerome.
    It was during the time when there was segregation which was wrong but as a child I did not understand why or what it was about. I do remember one of my teachers in the Catholic School that I attended(a nun) talked about about it. When I got home I told my mom about it and told her how wrong I thought it was. My experience was the relationship our family had with the African American woman who was helped by my grandfather(a policeman) when she was very young. She worked somewhere else but she would come by to visit and help my grandmother when she needed it. I loved her.

  • kingmcdee

    I don’t think the problem is with those statements so much as the conclusions that people suspect you want to draw from them (and honestly you can’t blame people for being suspicious, because I cannot see how these points are relevant unless you want to draw said conclusions from them). To take your points one by one:

    -(Crime statistics): No, but there are a lot of factors influencing the crime rate among blacks, none of which is due to any unique tendency toward violence in the Negro race.
    -(IQs): See above. More blacks than whites live in circumstances of extreme poverty, which is naturally going to drive down the level of education they are likely to receive. Even if we ignore the questionable use of IQ as an indicator of intelligence, this statistic is not terribly relevant unless you test a large number of people of different races AND roughly equal levels of education. Even then, that wouldn’t necessarily point to a deficiency in said race.
    -(Neighbourhoods): No, but see the above points about higher crime rates.
    -(African nations): Most African countries are less than a hundred years old, and many are suffering from rampant corruption and internal instability. To attribute this to some deficiency in the Negro race is unsound, and if you’re not attributing it to that then I really don’t see how this point is relevant to anything. I’d say the lack of a strong tradition and national identity is more relevant to the collapse of a country. Of particular note is the existence of black-majority countries with long, relatively stable histories and traditions (such as Ethiopia and Egypt).
    -(Ease of intermarriage): Maybe it’s *easier*, but I cannot see how anyone would find this particularly relevant. Sure, there’d be more cultural familiarity, more shared things, and that would make it *easier*. But I can’t really see what point you’re trying to make here, if that’s all you’re saying.

  • radiofreerome

    I should make it clear that my immediate family wasn’t overtly racist. My cousins were and uncles were racist in their comments. The whole family was opposed to the Perez regime, but not very understanding or supportive of the civil rights movement.

    I never heard any of the adults in my family express sympathy or concern about how this affected Lula. I never heard her complain. Segregation was the elephant in the room.